Iguazu Falls: To Visit Brazil or Not to Visit Brazil?
Iguazu Falls, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, straddles the border of Argentina and Brazil. On a recent trip to Iguazu Falls I had it in mind to answer a question that frequently comes up for my clients who visit the site: if they are not visiting any other parts of Brazil on their trip, is it worth it to obtain a visa to Brazil to see the Brazilian side of the falls?
The short answer is yes, but I’ll explain why sometimes the answer is no.
First, we must consider the accommodation options. On both sides there is one hotel within the boundaries of the national park. On the Argentine side this hotel is the Sheraton Iguazu. The Sheraton is well-positioned, providing views of the falls from a distance, including the rainbow-creating mist constantly in the air from the large Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat) Fall.
The main paths inside the Argentine National Park lead directly from the hotel. It is convenient to wake up, eat breakfast, and then stroll out of the hotel and into the park. These paths close at 6:00 p.m., the time when the national park on the Argentine side closes, so even guests at the Sheraton are unable to be on the paths after closing time.
The Sheraton was built during the last dictatorship in Argentina by the military, and its rather uninspiring architecture is a testament to that period. However, the rooms are comfortable and the experience of staying here is what one would expect from a five star international chain hotel.
On the Brazilian side, the only hotel within the national park is Hotel Das Cataratas. This property was taken over and exquisitely redone by Belmond Hotels (formerly Orient Express Hotels) in 2009. Only a few of the rooms in Das Cataratas offer a direct view of the falls, but the hotel is perched on a small hill right above one of the main viewing platforms on the Brazilian side of the park, so in any room you are just steps away from great views of the falls.
The hotel was originally built in 1959 by Real Consortium Airways, which was an airline serving Brazil in the early 20th century. During renovations Belmond did an excellent job of maintaining its original charm and Portuguese colonial style. The Das Cataratas feels like a special place, and staying here is like stepping back into luxurious history. The greatest perk to staying at the Das Cataratas is that guests of the hotel are allowed to walk on any of the trails on the Brazilian side of the park after closing. This gives guests exclusive access to this natural wonder after all the day visitors have to leave. One can walk at leisure around the trails from 5:00 p.m. onward, when most of the year there is still plenty of sunlight for a few hours, and then if the moon is bright enough, one can go exploring at night and maybe even see a moon-lit rainbow from the mist of the falls.
The other elements to consider are access to the falls, the views from each side, and the activities available. I spent my first full day on the Argentine side, which has over 2 kilometers of trails along the upper and lower paths and also includes a train to take visitors to various areas of the park. The Argentine side has walkways that pass thrillingly close to the edge of the Garganta del Diablo as well as other falls, and to me this side felt more interactive, with many chances to touch the water and feel its immense power. At the end of that first day I felt like I had had a full experience at the falls, and if I wasn’t going to cross to the Brazilian side the following day, it wouldn’t have felt like I was missing a big part of the Iguazu experience.
However, the next day on the Brazilian side I was impressed by the more panoramic views of the falls, and how I could appreciate much better their breadth from that side. There is one path that takes you close enough to the falls on the Brazilian side that you can get wet from the mist, but in general you’re set farther back on this side and can get a much better feel for the expanse of the falls.
Both sides offer boat trips that take you up the river and under the falls. The Argentine boat trip is fairly relaxed: it lasts for about 15 minutes and they bring you close enough to the falls to get a good spray, but only for a few moments. The Brazilian-side boat trips launch from farther away from the falls and the drivers give their passengers a thrill by cruising up the river at full speed, bouncing over rapids, until arriving to the falls. There they drive right into the falls and let the water rain down over passengers for what seems like a very long time.
The Brazilian side also currently has the only company offering rappelling and white water rafting. For travelers who have experience on class III and IV rapids, the rafting option at Iguazu will feel very tame in comparison, but it’s a fun and active way to experience the Brazilian side. The rappelling is also not very technical or challenging, but it’s a unique way to see the falls while rappelling down from a tall tower.
In conclusion, if you are interested in staying in a unique and historic hotel that gives you exclusive access to the falls after park hours, then getting the Brazilian visa and staying at the Das Cataratas is the way to go. If you just want to appreciate the beauty of the falls and do not want to go through the steps of obtaining a Brazilian visa, then rest assured that your stay at the Sheraton and a full day on the Argentine side will allow you to appreciate the wonder of the falls.